The Snows of Prague

The Snows of Prague


Having had to cancel a visit to southern Bohemia in January due to the death of a relative, I soon booked a replacement trip to Prague for a couple of nights in early March, thinking it would be simpler just to go there. Three friends of mine then decided to come along and I found us a hotel in the Malá Strana district below the Castle. This was the Hotel Čertovka, named after a finger of the Voltava river (‘Devil’s Stream’).

I also bought the Pocket Rough Guide to Prague and continued to learn some Czech off the web, such as:

Velké pivo, prosím (‘A large beer, please’);

Už jsem zaplatil (‘I’ve already paid’);

podvod (‘scam’);

Došlo k nedorozumění (‘There was a misunderstanding’);


Přišel jsem sem kvůli Švejkovi (‘I came here because of Švejk’).

Unlike in Budapest, the Czechs haven’t followed the Hungarian example of making their money-changing kiosks a state monopoly but instead they allow a free-for-all that is open to blatant fiddling. Some of the taxis remain dodgy in both places. Anyway, I’d carry a card and, apart from the beer, there were several of the pretty and historic locations I particularly wanted to see.

These included the buildings in which the Thirty Years War was hatched, both in the planning and attempted execution of the Catholic imperial messengers who were shot out a palace window, and the balcony where, on a snowy morning in 1948, Klement Gottwald emerged to emcee the communist take-over for a massive crowd below.

The latter moment provides the anecdote of the un-purged hat that opens one of Milan Kundera’s philosophico-sexual entertainments, The Book of Laughter and Forgetting. Gottwald was later voted the worst-ever Czech in a TV poll, part of a light entertainment format imported and licensed from the BBC.

I wasn’t too pushed about taking in the Kafka museum, as it happens. The insect fancier Vladimir Nabokov once spent an entire essay wondering exactly what kind of beetle Gregor Samsa had turned into in Metamorphosis but the real answer lies in the equivalent of the birds-of-a-feather proverb in the Irish language. Aithníonn ciaróg ciaróg eile (‘A beetle recognises another beetle’).

23rd February, Friday

All day it felt a bit like snow. There seems to be Siberian weather on the way. I picked up my order of Czech crowns at the bank (2,500 of them for €104). The lady asked me was I was going to Prague. Two of my travelling companions were in a nearby café. P. mentioned a story about an inebriated NGO type crashing his new NGO jeep into a Bosnian brothel in a snowstorm.

25th February, Sunday

An east wind has been blowing for days and there’s no frost tonight but they seem to be promising us some kind of repeat of White ’47 for the coming week. At the moment Thursday looks like the worst of it but we’ll see. A lot of snow may be under the bridge by then.

26th February, Monday

The worst of it is forecast for Thursday evening to Friday morning and I’m hoping we can get up and away before that. So far, it’s cold out but nothing drastic. Plenty of people in town this afternoon went bare-headed.

27th February, Tuesday

A flake or two swirled as I arrived to pick up my father from the day centre at half past three but it was an hour later before the first sprinkling of snow. Around six there was a real shower of it that left the roofs and plants white for a starry night.

28th February, Wednesday

Still starry at half past five this morning but by half nine a thin blanket had fallen. The sun was shining then, as it did on and off, between snow showers, or during them. Sights of the day and night:

(1) empty wine shelves in Frank’s supermarket (N. told me one woman went off with a crate of it);

(2) a snowboarder down the quay, towed by a car (a fall didn’t deter him).


I knew our hopes of travelling were snookered. I went into town tonight so I could take photos, including one I have of the old bridge, even though it’s not Charles (Karlův Most).

bridge cropped

1st March, Thursday

Half past six, it was snowing in the dark. Up at half eight, I knew we’d be going nowhere but looking online was still a formality. On the south coast, we just couldn’t risk a 400 km round trip in this weather for a likely flight cancellation.

i m g 58

i m g 59

I emailed the hotel again to confirm we would not be needing the taxi at the airport in Prague. In reply, regret was expressed that we would not be travelling on this occasion. The greedy owner is still determined to charge all four of us for both nights, thus ensuring that we won’t ever be back to give that hotel another chance.

A large green tractor noisily swerved in at Frank’s but a bank girl emerged from the shop (“They have no bread or milk in there!”), whereupon the tractor roared off down the road again. There was no milk in the local Spar either.

Our scheduled 13.40 Ryanair flight got away from Dublin after all, at 16.27, thirteen minutes inside the three hours needed for a delay refund. It may have been the last of the few planes to get off the ground today. Before dark I walked to town and took more photos.



2nd March, Friday

An awful lot of snow has fallen. I don’t remember anything like it before. Some of us may never see it again.



Those cheeky Czech chappies are not only charging us for both nights plus an extra little cut of three euros – city tax, I guess – but now they have also told that we were a no-show – after I’d flagged a weather problem a day in advance – and then emailed early yesterday to let them cancel the airport taxi pick-up in good time. Kipling has an answer for countries that claim they are not in Eastern Europe. East is east… Anyway, I was out photographing more of the best of our snowy settlement. This place here really should market its old town, its Altstadt (or Staré Město), snow or no snow.


Then I slipped into Downey’s for an hour or so. The young chap who was the sole customer there before me said he had left one of the pubs on the town square when the messing got too much (“lads dancing… fellas firing snowballs in the door…”). Then it turned out that he too should have been away in Prague this weekend, with a stag party.



Lucca, June 2013

Lucca, June 2013

17th June, Monday

Going commando in the shorts was a good opening move for the trip to Lucca, where the heat was intense.

Jean Italy 2013 023

Jean Italy 2013 027

On Piazza San Michele, I fell for the buccellato bullshit (€18 for two grande loaves). They weren’t even fresh. My mother and I later stopped at a café outside the Puccini house.

Jean Italy 2013 035

She’d mentioned leaving (the Puccini house) first but I have to wonder if working there with the constant piped music in the background would lead to undying hatred of the maestro.

John Italy 2013 021

A German sat down beside us with a Middle Eastern guy and the latter’s kid. When we said Cork, the German knew of Ryanair but then he said that he was only the driver and the others were off a cruise ship at La Spezia. The client’s (American?) wife had f*cked off – shopping – but he and his kid were kind. The boy offered some of his Pringles to my mother. The man then said, “What about him?” He meant me.

John Italy 2013 023

Jean Italy 2013 029

Escape from Italy

Escape from Italy


10th August, Sunday

Fiddlers Cross [a short film, co-scripted] won first prize for Best Screenplay in Rhode Island. My mother and I had boarded a train to Pisa in Santa Maria Novella in Florence when D. rang briefly with the news. I’d just been giving out about a young f*cker in shades and a baseball cap who had taken up three seats with three cases (“Uomo gentile! Tre valigie sui tre posti!”). His two buddies removed theirs but we got seated behind him upon a cooling suggestion from at least three Italian women sitting nearby.

Later I enjoyed seeing him bang his head off the overhead rack, blinded by his cap and shades. I don’t think he was even Italian, just some twat from Portugal or Brazil. My head and torso were melting after the hot Florentine afternoon; like an anthill it was, apart from the relaxing couple of Bacardi & Cokes (a fiver each) at an Irish pub called The Fiddler’s Elbow on Piazza Santa Maria Novella.

I wasn’t the only person showing some exasperation in Florence today. A tall American father was pulling his little son along past the Duomo and the kid was singing or chanting something – something very repetitive, I guess – and the American dad looked down and said, “For Christ’s sake, will you knock it off!”


The hotel here in Pisa is more like a hostel and we had to cross the river to find a place to eat; somewhere that looked better than it tasted, at least where my plate was concerned. I was just demoralised, having to walk that far and for some sh*t (prawns) too but what was I thinking? My mother was a bit happier with her (tough) steak choice (with homemade… crisps!), after I’d wondered would she ever find something on the menu. We’re tired of Italy now and this time Pisa looks or feels more like C.W.’s verdict (“a dump”). She even slipped off a step near the hotel on the way back but thanks be to Jesus neither she nor her camera broke anything. Even if I sleep a few hours, this last leg always seemed like it would be a chore.

11th August, Monday

Up very early to get out of the kip of a ho(s)tel, we were still stuck with a plane an hour late, so again we were spared the Ryanair on-time fanfare on landing in Cork, where the pilot must have fancied he was doing it on an aircraft carrier.

Orvieto, August 2014

Orvieto, August 2014


6th August, Wednesday

We had to wait two hours for a train in Siena but getting to Orvieto took a little less than that. Up we went on the funicular to this table-top town in Umbria and I took the luggage as we marched up Via Cavour in the heat. The Valentino is a nice hotel. We got air-conditioned rooms with a view, though not over the edge.




In Italy you could spend your life with a crick in your neck, looking up at church ceilings and other lofty positions. In the Duomo my mother spotted The Preaching of the Anti-Christ (“I thought it was Our Lord at first”) before I came across it in the Rough Guide, which has a lot more numbers in the key than in the actual diagram (I filled some in). In the background the original men in black seem to be rampaging around the temple.



After that I brought her down to the vertiginous wall near San Giovenale but went back there on my own later to make a video that captured the drop. On one of the narrow, stony, shady lanes a guy passed whistling Baker Street very melodically. His day was done.

Perugia & Assisi, August 2014

Perugia & Assisi, August 2014


7th August, Thursday

Round Lake Trasimene, we got to Perugia by three. Johnny in Knoxville. The lift is needed to get up to reception (third floor off a narrow, sloping, side street). After another shower I slept for an hour and then we went out to eat and walk about a bit. The old city is high up, as we realised from various angles.


We had a good meal with a bottle of Grechetto at Merlin’s on Via Fani beside the Galleria Nazionale dell’Umbria, where we were the first to sit down, and then we sat on the crowded warm steps of the Duomo.

8th August, Friday

Assisi: it was hot on that holy hill (I didn’t try to take Rocca Maggiore) and we had a long wait for our lunch in La Lanterna, where there was too much breezy air-conditioning for my mother.


I’d sleep now only for the nearby angle grinder. Maybe the f*cker has stopped. Yes, he can. Roberto the Builder.

It was probably for the worst this evening that my mother thought she had locked herself into her bathroom while I was getting her a spare shower cap from mine (and there delayed a little to figure out where we might go later). She just didn’t put enough effort into turning the door knob and instead resorted to banging on the door “with a can” for a while. She said ten minutes but it was probably two or three. Today she wandered off inside the St. Francis Basilica too. St. Clare’s was quieter.




Anyway, we’re not going anywhere tomorrow and tonight we found a decent restaurant called Da Peppone on the far side of the Duomo. Spaghetti carbonara (& more Grechetto) did me fine and a pork chop (& chips) was something she would eat off the menu but I couldn’t really relax, looking at her and wondering was she half-dead or what. She came back to life after we sat on some steps on Corso Vannucci (she had an ice cream cone) and we got talking to a French couple from Lyon, with two young daughters. She told me to offer to take a picture of all four. Madame, si vous voulez, je peux prendre la photo.  A pigeon went on to shit on the bare shoulder of one of the girls. The father and I later exchanged email addresses and by the time we separated it was almost ten and I had to rush back to get our keys before they closed the door and made it un po’ awkward to get in. It took a few minutes to find my mother again outside but when I got her upstairs she was only bothered by not being able to get another bottle of water at reception. But I knew she had enough.

9th August, Saturday

Rest day. Instead of grinding, Roberto is banging today, towards 5 pm. By noon or so we had Perugia done. An open window on the weird Via Ritorta revealed a woman calling a guy a “fascista” but, if ever a street gave a feeling of being down a well, that was it. Later I had to go back and video it. At the other end, I caught some of a guy playing the Godfather theme on a concertina.

A note on the blonde at reception today (whom I’d already briefly seen at our first breakfast, in a black dress, smiling when I passed her the milk for some other guests): she’s someone to put most in the ha’penny place but also probably a demon if crossed. I don’t think she liked me when I accidentally pulled my mother’s finger when reaching for the other key, earlier, to hand it in with mine. Anyway, who cares, she’s a receptionist with Italian pop buzzing on the radio somewhere behind the counter. My mother is relieved at not having to go anywhere today. “A whirlwind out of this world” was a description I saw in a text to M., sent yesterday.
At half seven, I discovered my mother had been at her room door so much (a faulty knob) that the (elder, peroxide, I think) blonde rang from reception to see was she all right. At the desk I explained to the babe that it wasn’t my fault as I’d told her to text if there was any problem. After the evening meal we were sitting on the warm cathedral steps again. From Giardini Carducci, Assisi looks closer in the dark than it did in the light, looking east.